I read philosopher John Leslie’s Immortality Defended (2007). It is an admirably brief book (supplemented with many suggestions for further reading) which outlines and defends a model of pantheism. The discussion of immortality is actually only a small part of the story (the fourth chapter of a five chapter book) and Leslie’s ideas about that topic follow fairly naturally once the pantheistic stage is set. My summary and comments are below (also to be continued in a follow-up post), but note they only capture a small portion of the rich and provocative arguments to be found in the book. FYI, a good NDPR entry on the book is here.
Leslie’s model has several contentious elements (introduced quickly in the first chapter). First, he argues that some form of Platonism and modal realism is true. He says that even if the cosmos did not exist, its possibility would, as would things like mathematical truths, and, he thinks, ethical truths. The next key concept, which he finds first in Plato, is the notion that there is an ethical requirement for the existence of the concrete world. Finally, he adopts from Spinoza the suggestion that what exists can be described as aspects of a divine mind (or minds, as Leslie discusses later).
Let’s assume that Platonism is true in some form; Leslie devotes chapter 2 to his most difficult topic: the idea of the Good as a creative principle. Plato said that the good “is what gives existence to things” and is “itself not existence.” In Leslie’s updated version: “the ethical requiredness of the cosmos accounts for its existence. (p.17)” The world exists because it is good that it should.
So, how does this work? How does an abstract concept act as creative force? Leslie concedes that there is no logical or mechanical schema for explaining this. Nor can it be verified in any empirical way. Despite this he thinks the idea is coherent and shouldn’t be ruled out. He notes a classical theist would cite a personal God-creator as the mechanism; Leslie thinks many of the same reasons for thinking God created the world (the world’s grandeur, its intelligibility, its life-suitability, its sheer existence) can be just as easily be invoked without the personal deity, and the pantheistic model actually comports better with what we observe about the world. Specifically, the pantheist doesn’t have to explain why this particular world was created, with all of its flaws and evils (and apparent absence of miracles), he or she can merely point out that our world is valuable enough to be a manifestation of the creative principle or, put alternatively, interesting enough to be something contemplated by a divine mind. And it is likely far from the best world so contemplated which exists: Leslie says it can be viewed “…as one of countless worlds that deserve a divine mind’s contemplation. (p.29)”
In a tricky and not especially convincing section Leslie discusses “How Creative Power might be Real Necessarily”, although the necessity is not a logical one. He says there are other kinds of necessity: there seems to be a need for bare qualitative similarities and differences in the world (he uses an example of the perceived colors of after-images); the linkage of goodness to the other qualities of the world’s objects could be such a given, pre-linguistic/symbolic necessity. Still, the idea of creative power doesn’t go automatically with the concept of the good, and Leslie has no proof that it does so. But he says if the good did have creative power it would meet many of the criteria needed to provide a ground for the world: it doesn’t depend on the prior existence of any person or object, it exists necessarily and eternally, and the exercise of its power would not be conditional on anything else.
In Chapter 3, Leslie discusses his idea that there might be infinitely many divine minds to go with many cosmoi. But it seemed to me very little was riding on the choice between many minds vs. a single infinite divine mind, so I’ll skip ahead. Next he discusses the relationship between a human mind and a divine one of which it is a part. He argues that there is no inconsistency in our limited minds being small parts of a divine mind. In fact he thinks there is evidence for this derived from the kind of unity manifested in our conscious minds, and likewise the holistic aspect of nature generally, given quantum theory. These unities make the idea of our being part of a unified, yet structured divine mind more plausible. It follows that pantheism would imply panpsychism, but Leslie thinks only the right kind of complex quantum system would presumably be a candidate for a substantive mind. I thought these lines of arguments were good.
Chapter 4 discusses three models of immortality which we might have, despite the rejection of the afterlife of traditional religions. First, Leslie discusses the model of the universe as a four-dimensional block. If the past and future are as real as the present, then any person who ever lives has a type of immortality. But more interestingly, if we accept the idea of being part of a divine mind, then other possibilities open up. Perhaps this divine mind could think thoughts about us beyond the lifespan we’re in now: this would be a sort of afterlife. But a less specific concept of immortality than this seems to be Leslie’s preferred one. This follows directly from the idea that the divine mind is itself eternal, and our life-pattern is one aspect of its being. The eternal nature of this larger entity represents “…the persistence of something existentially unified that had carried one’s mental life... (p.67, emphasis original).” So, we might thus survive bodily death, in a fashion, as we participate in the future of the divine mind.
The final chapter of the book returns to the argument of why Leslie thinks his pantheistic model is supported by what we observe about our own world. I will discuss this in a follow-up post.